Monday, 17 February 2014

Is there a Gestetner in the house?

This is how I remember the machine in our house -- hooded in
a grey cover when not in use -- with only the crank sticking out.
WE had one in our home when we were kids. Hence, I could pronounce this three-syllable word even before I learnt to pronounce other simple words in school. (Of course, I could also pronounce Kelvinator, the now rather antique bramd of our fridge, but that would be another story.)

My parents ran a correspondence school in accountancy. Their office was a room at home. And every other night, the sound of the Gestetner hard at work, duplicating copies of lesson notes, could be heard. And later on, we would sit in a circle on the floor to sort out the notes and then staple them into sets. The final touch was stamping the school's "chop" onto the top right hand corner of the notes. The sets of notes would then be inserted into brown Manila envelopes and mailed out to the students.

Gestetner stencils (right) and the box they came
 in (left). These were unearthed by my brother
when he cleaned out his store room.

The Gestetner was easy to use. You first mount the stencil over the roller (this could be the most tricky part for us kids). Then crank the handle manually to even out the ink, set the number of copies you want, punch the "go" button... and the machine would go ke-chung, ke-chung, ke-chung. I remember how mum used a special stylus to write on the stencil (a deep turquoise blue -- which was really the colour of the layer of wax over the paper). The stencils she had were specially designed for Chinese characters as they had grids on them. Mum would write a character in each little box with the stylus. Painstaking. There was a correcting liquid (pink colour and smelt really great) which mum could use to brush over mistakes and then rewrite over the spot.

Once, my teacher (I think it was my primary three teacher) needed to print some notes urgently and the school's duplicating machine had broken down. She made an appeal to the class, asking whether we know of anyone who has such a machine. I raised my silly hand of course. Mum was a bit upset because she said she was busy enough already without having to print Science lessons notes for the whole class.

Anyway, the "ke-chung" sound made by the machine had a rather hypnotic effect on me and I would often drift off to sleep listening to it.

In writing this blog, I learnt that Gestetner has since been acquired by Ricoh. (And I just have to add this, Kelvinator by Electrolux.) But a bigger find was that, in Googling the word "Gestetner", I came across this moving story on the life of an Irish man working with the Gestetner branch office in Singapore (which was then in Cecil Street). He eventually became a prisoner of war held in Changi and later, in Japan. It was told in a fine manner by his grand daughter with a lot of love, and without too much dramatic overtones. Here's the link, if you are interested to give it a read: J B Dunne... A life well lived.

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